£67m arts centre – with no art gallery and few performances

EXCLUSIVE: The Fairfield Halls fiasco gets worse by the day, with Bournemouth-based venue operators BHLive staging shows on just 24% of available dates. Croydon is supposed to be London’s ‘Borough of Culture’ in 2023… By STEVEN DOWNES

Empty promises: Sadiq Khan attended the reopening of the Fairfield Halls with then council leader Tony Newman and Ollie ‘Shitshow’ Lewis in 2019. That was as good as it got

Croydon is London’s Borough of Culture in 2023, a supposedly feel-good scheme backed by hundreds of thousands of pounds in grants from the Mayor of London.

Croydon Council, which went bust in 2020 and has received £120million in a government bail-out, is stumping up £1million towards the Borough of Culture events.

But the ill-conceived venture is just the latest reminder of Tony Newman’s toxic time as council leader, when he left behind a borough bankrupted, morally as well as financially, where most of its libraries are now open for only two days a week and where its flagship arts centre is this year “dark” for three-quarters of the available dates.

Sadiq Khan was present in September 2019 for the prosecco-fueled gala ceremony when Newman, flanked by Alison Butler and Ollie “Shitshow” Lewis, the council cabinet members responsible for the costly shambles, finally unveiled the refurbished Fairfield Halls.

That night, in sometimes bullish, defiant speeches (“They said it couldn’t be done!” Newman blustered), they offered promises of a bright new cultural future for Croydon, full of top-class entertainment, free music recitals in the Halls’ foyer, and a “vibrant hub” with bars and restaurants busy with passing arts-lovers through every week. Soon after, Mayor Khan signed off on awarding Croydon status as London’s Borough of Culture for 2023.

Empty: the Concert Hall, refurbished at staggering costs, now stands idle and empty for much of the time

It’s entirely possible, now they have seen the paucity of the programme pulled together by Lewis and the council for 2023, that there are some senior City Hall aides who are having serious second thoughts about the wisdom of going through with any spending on the south London borough’s half-baked, half-arsed plans.

Lewis’s final piece of work as a councillor (he was deselected by Labour members in New Addington) is a list of planned events for 2023 that runs to less than two sides of A4.

The Lewis plan has few firm dates or details, but suggests that tens of thousands of pounds of other people’s money can be frittered away on a handful of community arts projects. The recipients include all the usual suspects, among them Croydon’s wealthiest “charity”, the Whitgift Foundation, operator of three private schools.

In true Croydon Council style, under Lewis’s blueprint, the Borough of Culture is due to start three months late…

What is noticeable about the Lewis plan is the absence of something: there’s barely any mention of the Fairfield Halls in the documents that gained cabinet approval last week.

What was supposed to be “the jewel in the crown” (© Tony Newman) of Croydon’s cultural offering, now spends most weeks standing empty, vastly underused.

The Fairfield Halls has become the multi-million-pound symbol of council mismanagement, it is now the scene of a possible multi-million-pound fraud (an investigation is underway), and through it the council continues to demonstrate a crass absence of controls over third-party contracts.

Today, Croydon’s Fairfield Halls is an arts centre with no art gallery, with a concert hall with no concert piano.

The flagship arts centre can offer only a desultory line-up of live acts and performances. Research conducted for Inside Croydon earlier this month shows that, across its three performance spaces – the Ashcroft Theatre, the Concert Hall and “The Wreck” – there are were just 62 advertised events across more than 250 dates (from March 9 to November 19).

Unfinished, now under-used: after a refurb that went £37m over-budget, the Fairfield is now saddled with operators who seem unable to book acts to fill its three performance spaces

All this while Croydon Council Tax-payers are being expected to pick up the £67million bill for the unfinished and incomplete botch job of a refurbishment carried out by the council’s failed housing developers, Brick by Brick.

The management of the Fairfield Halls has been in the hands of Bournemouth-based leisure centre operators BHLive since 2018. BHLive was given the gig at the council-owned venue largely because they claimed that they could run an arts operation without the £1million annual subsidy that Croydon had provided to the previous operators.

Even four years ago, BHLive’s pitch seemed ballsy. Then Brick by Brick bungled the refurb, getting off site 15 months later than promised. And then along came covid.

BHLive opted to “hibernate” the venue for 12 months when lockdown hit in March 2020, but they did not neglect to claim government furlough money and a series of other recovery grants from various organisations, including the Arts Council. As Inside Croydon has reported, BHLive have also collected a series of large payments from Croydon Council, mostly as compensation for the delays and shortcomings of the refurbishment.

Since covid lockdown precautions eased, the change in the programming at the Halls is barely noticeable. It is as if they are still in hibernation.

The Fairfield official website, showing their forthcoming attractions, is a bit of a moving target, with new events being added all the time. And some performances being cancelled, too.

We carried out our survey of the Fairfield Halls’ publicly available performance details on March 9. Since then, the operators have begun to add one or two evenings of cinema screenings, to help bulk out their empty calendar.

But just take next month, April.

Over the course of the next 30 days, in the three venues, The Wreck, Concert Hall and Ashcroft Theatre, the Fairfield is listing just 16 events. And one of those involves ex-Arsenal footballer Perry Groves.

Hardly Borough of Culture stuff, is it?

In the 255 days from March 9 through to mid-November, there may be some private hires and conferences to fill the gaping holes in the Fairfield programme (these won’t be shown on its website bookings page), and some cage-fighting and boxing shows that may also be privately ticketed.

But last week, when Croydon Council hosted a “business conference” (oh, the irony), attended by council leader Hamida Ali and local Labour MP Sarah Jones, that was staged on the other side of George Street at the privately-owned Boxpark, not at the Fairfield.

Big stage: when council leader Hamida Ali addressed the Croydon business conference last week, she did so at Boxpark, not the Fairfield Halls

Yet when BHLive was recruited four years ago, it was because of their apparent experience and expertise as … conference organisers.

No one at the council, though, appears to be asking the searching questions about why the Fairfield Halls are now being so under-used, all the time costing the borough money.

Across the next seven months or so, the Fairfield’s two resident companies, the London Mozart Players and the Talawa theatre company, are doing little to take up the slack in the venues’ programming.

The LMP has just two Fairfield performance dates between now and November. For Talawa, there’s nothing.

Indeed, since the Halls re-opened in September 2019, the Talawa has given few live performances at its new “home”. The Talawa has just come to the end of a month-long run of its latest production, Running With Lions. But that was staged at the Lyric Hammersmith, not in Croydon. The company refused to offer any explanation when asked by Inside Croydon. Both Talawa and the London Mozart Players feature in the plans for the Borough of Culture.

Key to running a thriving and… well, yes, vibrant arts venue is keeping it open, and offering a rich variety of different attractions to appeal across the whole of society. For example, the old Arthur Davison childrens’ concerts on Saturday mornings would often be sell-outs, as generations of Croydon children were introduced to and often given a lifelong love of music – often creating a market for future classical evening concerts at the Fairfield Halls.

But there’s been no return of those popular performances, nor, indeed, most of the other am-dram or semi-professional groups who used to provide much of the venues’ performances.

Sources among those groups, all of which have been keen to tread the boards again post-covid, strongly suggest that BHLive have basically priced them out of the Fairfield Halls, as if they prefer the venue to stay “dark”, with the doors firmly closed, rather than provide any real programme of arts.

Not going out: the Fairfield’s events for the next two weeks, with tribute acts and cinema screenings. But at least we’ve got Perry Groves…

The Fairfield Halls offerings through to November compare poorly with other south London suburban arts venues. Of its 62 acts booked, 12 are tribute acts – nearly one-fifth of the programme.

  • At the other end of the tram network, The New Wimbledon Theatre had more than three times as many shows on sale as the Fairfield Halls, with 217 performances at its single venue. Of those, only 6per cent (13) can be described as tribute acts.
  • Over the same period, The Churchill Theatre, Bromley, has 207 performances. And residents of Bromley are subjected to only 18 nights of tribute acts.
  • Even the Epsom Playhouse is managing to stage more performances than the Fairfield, with 84, in its single auditorium.

Perhaps particularly troubling over the under-use of the Fairfield Halls is The Wreck – what BHLive likes to call “The Recreational”. This live performance space was created by demolishing the Halls’ original Arnhem Gallery art gallery. Newman and his cronies managed to get a £8million grant towards developing a replacement art gallery in the Halls’ car park. That was never built, and no one is really clear about how that money got used.

The Wreck is supposed to be the largest standing capacity live music venue in the whole of Croydon. Between now and November, it is staging just one concert.

There are other strong signals that BHLive simply don’t fancy their gig at all. The box office rarely opens; it is not even available for walk-up ticket purchases this Saturday night for the big “Carmina Burana”. concert. The Foyer bar and Sun Lounge are occasionally open, albeit badly under-staffed, and there’s no food offering. The specially built café next to the Ashcroft has been used to dispense thousands of covid jabs, but has not been selling any frothy coffees.

After Neil Chandler left as the Fairfield Halls’ artistic director in early 2020, BHLive put its head of marketing, Kevin Quilty, in charge. He has now returned to his old role and Jonathan Higgins has been named as the new general manager, though whether this will transform the lacklustre offerings has yet to be seen.

The chances are, it won’t. The subject of the Fairfield Halls and the council’s approach to the arts, and the Borough of Culture, has barely raised a whisper so far among the Tory and Labour candidates to become elected Mayor.

“The almost complete absence of any forthright mention of the Halls in the Borough of Culture programme is very worrying,” one source said this week. “It’s as if they know the blight might continue for a while yet. And yet the Halls could have been, should be, front and centre in everything we are doing as a borough.

“They’ve spent £67million on the place and it is as if they have got nothing to show for it. Something needs to change, and quickly.”

Read more: £67m fraud at Fairfield: Town Hall row over calling in police
Read more: Conflicts of interest, incomplete contracts, unlawful payments
Read more: £30m Fairfield Halls project never went to competitive tender

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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
This entry was posted in Alison Butler, Arnhem Gallery, Art, Ashcroft Theatre, BH Live, Borough of Culture 2023, Business, Croydon Council, Fairfield Halls, Hamida Ali, Mayor of London, Neil Chandler, Oliver Lewis, RIPI II: Fairfield Halls, Sadiq Khan, Talawa Theatre Company, The Wreck, Theatre, Tony Newman and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to £67m arts centre – with no art gallery and few performances

  1. David Simons says:

    A great report IC, thank you. Another stone unturned in the sorry saga.

    Fairfield may be ‘open’ but it isn’t delivering anything like the promises made by BHLive when they tendered for the contract (more dodgy procurement that needs to be exposed).

    Independent Mayor Andrew Pelling is calling for a change to the Operators; BHLive out! and a return to local management by an independent trust. We have seen many reports about this disastrous waste of taxpayers’ money and this election presents the ideal opportunity to start again; to celebrate the amazing cultural organisations in our Borough.

    Without a Mayoral election this wouldn’t have happened, neither Labour or the Conservatives have shown any interest in securing real cultural legacy across the borough or righting the evident wrongs of Fairfield. Let us ensure that Fairfield Halls and cultural organisations across the wider borough get the support and recognition they deserve.

    A vote for an Independent Mayor who has nailed his colours to the mast for Croydon culture will move us in the right direction…unless any of the other candidates have anything to say on the matter?

    • David Simons says:

      For those that stick a thumb down, please have the courage to detail your opinion. Do you believe that BH Live have done an amazing job of their tenure to date – please give some detail. Do you believe that either the Labour party or the Tories should be showered with glory for the way they have represented Croydon culture ? To ‘thumbs down’ and not have the conviction to support your public display of disagreement is a very poor show.

      • Liz says:

        Well said David. It seems the “thumbs down’s” with no explanatory accompaniment, appear on each article where Andrew Pelling is mentioned. I think a lot of a certain kind of person don’t want him in, as they are afraid of the good he will do for Croydon residents!

  2. Anna Arthur says:

    We deserve so much better than this. Thank you Andrew Pelling for giving this some visibility.

  3. Few things make me more ashamed of what Croydon has become than this debacle. Thanks IC for highlighting. My grandparents were born and died in Croydon and my mum and her sisters were proud of the Fairfield Halls – it shifted the London arts scene a few miles south. What ambition!
    What an achievement! Yes, it was built under a local government headed by the hated Tories, but those politicians had pride, vision and business acumen, qualities that are absent in today’s grubby lot

  4. Lewis White says:

    Could there be a mutually beneficial relationship between the Brit School and the Fairfield Halls?

    It seems a bit of a shame that with all that youthful performing talent being nurtured a short bike or bus ride away in Selhurst, the stage in the Fairfield Concert hall remains empty of their presence.

    I would also like to see Classical music encouraged by allocating a 100 tickets per performance for under 18’s for £2 a ticket.

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